Beyond the bookshelf

Digital technologies open doors for new ways to research and study

Berton Woodward and Elaine Smith
Victoria Owen in the UTSC library

We're in an age of limitless data, and sorting through it all is one of the great challenges for students and researchers alike.

UTSC Chief Librarian Victoria Owen calls this the “ecology of information,” and librarians today make it their mission to help scholars cull the masses of data to find the right information and organize it in a useful way.

This is not your everyday Google search. Several librarians are specialized in particular disciplines, such as Deputy Chief Librarian Sarah Forbes, who has an environmental sciences degree and works in close partnership with scientists.

“It’s about navigating and selecting and finding and knowing what resources are available,” says Forbes.

UTSC librarians also hold regular classes to educate students on how to use library resources for their research.

The original library was located in the Science Wing of Scarborough College and grew so quickly that books began overflowing to temporary storage areas all over campus.

Students voted in favour of a levy that would raise $400,000 for a new library. The new building was named after Vincent Bladen, an Economics professor and former Dean of the Faculty of Arts & Science.

The main library has been housed since 2003 in the adjacent Academic Resource Centre. As a research library, it boasts 400,000 books and is fully integrated with the massive U of T Library system, third largest in North America behind Harvard and Yale.

Printed books are now a third of all new acquisitions—the rest of the yearly budget goes to electronic editions, journals, databases and other digital sources.

Owen says one of the big issues in coming years will be “boundaries”— what data is shared and what is proprietary.

In 2010, the library’s new Digital Scholarship Unit began assisting faculty with multimedia-oriented projects and helping them create collections online, most of which are publicly available.

Kirsta Stapelfeldt, co-ordinator of the unit, is proud of the leading-edge work she and her staff are doing with faculty members on how digital technology can make new research methods possible and allow them to view their data in new ways.

Searching multimedia files to analyze a particular topic, for instance, and creating new infographics and visualizations of data are now within their reach.

“Every project is unique, but we’re building a shared infrastructure,” she says.

Because software becomes obsolete so quickly, the Digital Scholarship Unit advocates using open standards to ensure that even if a programming language is no longer used, information from researchers’ data sets can still be retrieved.

“Research funding agencies are now requiring data management plans that indicate how the researchers will make their data available and how they will maintain it,” says Stapelfeldt.